What makes an etching an etching?

What is a print?

An original print involves an image that is hand printed by either the artist or a Master Printer. There are several printing methods, some require mechanical presses such as etching/intaglio, lithography and collograph. Relief print methods don’t necessarily require a press and can be printed directly with a burin, a spoon or by hand burnishing, like woodcuts and linocuts. Silkscreen/serigraphs are the final family of prints and are printed by forcing ink through an image on silk which has been stretched over a large screen.

Printing methods

Printmaking of any kind is an involved and usually multi-step process. The simplest prints are the relief prints. An image is carved into a piece of wood or linolium and the ink is rolled onto the image and printed directly by hand (with a spoon or burin) or using a press.

Each of the other methods of printmaking requires more equipment to either make or print the image and therefore more of an involed process. The presses are large, heavy and expensive. In addition to this fact, there is also the need for ventilation, storage for caustic chemicals and solvents as well as a large array of technical equipment in the smooth running of any printmaking studio.

Acids such as nitric acid and ferric chloride are used in the etching process and small amounts of nitric acid and other chemicals are used in lithography. The use of oil based inks neccessitates the use of solvents in their clean up.

Due to basic economics, most artists print at co-operative studios. For a membership fee, artists gain access to the studio and there is usually a pay for use schedule.


Etching are made from metal plates, usually zinc or copper and occassionally aluminum. Acids are used to etch the plates- a process that can be simplified by thinking of the plate being exposed to acid to create an area that holds ink, or protected from acid and staying un-inked. The printmaker always has to remember that the image will be reversed when printed. Once the image is etched into the plate, it is inked. Paper is prepared by soaking it in water, dampdrying it and then placing it onto the inked plate on the press bed. 
To print the image, blankets are placed over the paper and then everything is rolled through the etching press- at a few thousand pounds per square inch. The paper is forced into the plate, picking up every detail that has been etched.

The final print is proofed several times until the artist is happy with the image, the colour of the ink and the kind of paper used. When all of these decisions have been made, a printers proof, also called a BAT (Bon a tirer or good to pull) is printed. This is the print that the edition is matched to in order to maiintain consistancy. Monoprints and monotypes Monoprints may be created using any of the printmaking methods, but I will refer to the etching techniques here. Monoprints are as diverse as the artists who make them and there are no real rules. The most common way to make a monoprints is to use a piece of plastic as a template. Ink is rolled onto a sheet of plastic and rolled through an etching press to transfer the ink onto paper. This process can be done several times to build up a rich layer of colour and texture. Each time the plastic is run through the press the image is transfered onto the paper and therefore lost.

Each artist uses different source material to create monoprints. This may be proofs of etchings that the artist has reworked or they may start with a blank plate. Additional imagery can be drawn, glued or printed on and this may be doen by hand or also using an etching press- they sky is the limit. There may be a family of similar images or a ³suite² of monoprints making up a body of work.

Monoprints exist as editions of one, so each one is a unique print. In the case where an etched plate, or a portion of an etched plate is used (referring to a reproducable image in the monoprint), the print is called a monoprint, otherwise this work is referred to as a monotype.

Information about 4 colour photo-etching

How was a print like Kinickinnick made?

Kinnickinnick is a 4 colour, 4 plate photo-etching. What this means is that 4 separate copper plates were inked and printed one after the other to create the final image. As you can imagine, the registration of each plate has to be perfect for the colours and the image to match properly. The Process Creating the image The image started as a colour slide, scanned into the computer and manipulated by the artist using Adobe photoshop. The image was separated into CMYK format (a colour reference for Cyan-blue, Magenta-red, Yellow and K being Black) and output as four separate film positives. These films (imagine grey dots on a sheet of acetate or plastic film) are used to create the etched plates. 

Creating the etching plates

The copper plates used for the project were coated with photo emulsion, making them light sensitive. Each plate was exposed on a special exposure unit with one of the films. The result was a total of four plates, one for each of the colours: blue, red, yellow and black. Once the plates had been exposed, they were developed, much like a photograph. At this point, the plates are carefully etched in ferric chloride. This is a crucial part of the process as too much time in the acid bath can ruin a plate. When the four plates are etched, the inking process begins.

Inking the plates

Each plate is inked with its appropriate colour to test the success of the etching process. If the plate is under etched it won¹t hold hold enough ink and if it is too deeply etched the image holds too much ink. As Goldilocks found just right is the way to go. The order of the plates as well as the shade of the colour used affects the image. Another factor to be considered is the thickness or viscosity of the ink (which is related to the density of the colour). When all factors have been tested and the colour is correct, a BAT is pulled. This is the Bon a Tirer, (or good to pull) which is the colour proof that the entire edition is compared to. This maintains the consistency of the edition. Final details Registration of the four plates is a major part of this process. The Master Printer who worked on this project, is well known for his accuracy in beveling and polishing the edges of the plates. In this way precise measurements can be made to make sure that all of the plate line up where they are supposed to.


The final consideration is paper selection. The artist chose to use BFK Rives, a French 100% rag paper. Each sheet was soaked in water and damp dried before being calendered. Paper is calendered by running it through the etching press to control the amount of stretch of the fibres. This is especially important in a multi plate image as the paper may stretch between plates causing off registration. Each of the sheets was dampened and calendered three times before it was printed. The Printer for the project was Peter Braune at New Leaf Editions in Vancouver BC. There are 40 prints in the edition of Kinnickinnick.